Saturday marked one year since Brendan Burke, son of the Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke, died in a car crash during a snowstorm in Indiana not unlike the massive blast of winter that just passed us here.
Of course, the story at face value is enough to be terribly sad — a 21-year-old dying suddenly under circumstances that could have easily struck anyone is scary. While his father did such a valiant job of masking his pain in public, it was hard to watch it slip through.
It’s not as if tragedy has never struck high-profile figures such as Brian Burke in hockey-crazed Toronto, but Brendan’s death was exceptionally unnerving because of his own high-profile act just several months before.
In late November of 2009, about two months before his death, he came out to a magazine writer, and with his involvement with his university’s hockey team in a support capacity, became the first openly gay person involved in higher-level hockey.
An openly gay person in a sport not known as gay-friendly by any stretch is enough of a story in itself, but the stature of Brian Burke only added to Brendan’s feat. What did the rough-around-the-edges, super-alpha, long-time advocate of fighting in hockey Brian Burke think of his son’s sexuality?
Brian was just fine with it. He did a Hockey Night in Canada interview with his son in which he declared that homophobia, as far as he was concerned, had no place in professional hockey. He claimed that we would have to be fools to think that there were not several closeted gay people already in pro sports.
At the time it seemed, and still seems, that Brendan’s coming out was a major first step towards having an openly gay athlete on the field, court, or ice some day.
Since Brendan’s death Brian has become an outspoken advocate for eliminating homophobia and other forms of discrimination from sports and other areas of life. He’s spoken to high school Gay-Straight Alliances and marched in PRIDE. He’s collaborating with a former NFL commissioner, whose son is also gay, to eliminate homophobia in sports.
For Brian Burke the world keeps spinning, unfortunately without his son. But his continued advocacy means he can find peace in the fact that a lot of people, both in and out of sports, are profoundly grateful for his choice to take up the fight of eliminating intolerance, and that Brendan would be awfully proud of him.